You may not know I take singing lessons, and one of the things I’ve been struggling with is starting out a note spot-on. Typically what I do instead is sort of slur or bend onto the note from my starting pitch. Katherine, my instructor, kept telling me things would be much better if I could nail the note from the get go – and I told her that I think part of the problem was that I was imitating the sound the piano makes. She had no idea what I meant, of course. Piano keys only make one note, right? Not quite. If you’ve never read about Overtones, you may find them interesting. On a piano, the key you strike produces a frequency called the fundamental frequency, however, it also produces many other frequencies called overtones. The when you want to talk about the overtones and the fundamental frequency together, you call them partials.
To examine this further I made a recording of Katherine’s piano. I struck a variety of notes one at a time and saved them for later analysis. I then played back the recording and attempted to vocally recreate precisely what I heard, perhaps with some exaggeration. I then took those recordings and loaded them into a software called Praat. I used Praat in several linguistics classes and find its great for analysis, plus, I was already comfortable with it.
This is a screenshot of the analysis of one of the notes I recorded. The red dots are a trace of what Praat identifies as the formants, which are (as far as I can tell), the word linguists use which can be considered roughly analogous to musical partials. The fundamental frequency is the lowest line of red dots. See how it bends at the beginning?
Now take a look at the analysis of my imitation of what I hear when a piano note is played. This time its my voice, not a piano, so the picture looks different. What I’m interested in, though, is the shape thats formed of the pitch line – the blue line.
Seems similar? To me it does (especially when taking into account how well I feel like I can mimic the sound I hear). Whats interesting is that before I started this activity I suspected that volume was influencing my perception of pitch, as there has been shown to be a correlation between those two. In this investigation I just happened to notice this other correlation because I was playing with all of the Praat settings and luckily realized the similarity – I did nearly miss it.
So what does it all mean? “Not sure” is the best answer. I haven’t confidently nailed down what is going on, this is just a lead to me so far. (Unfortunately a lead that won’t get pursued until I figure out how to not require sleep or how to not die.) It also doesn’t seem to have many practical effects, except that it may be related to why I seem to like music more than most other people I know. It also means that I should probably practice singing with a pure sine wave generator. Check out the Praat analysis on one of those: